Monday, June 06, 2005

Merritt Workshop: Online Learning Communities

The first half-day session I chose in Merritt was called Online Communties: Virtual environment for networking, collaboration, and communication. It struck me again that you can't "skim" at a conference, because I would have liked to attend all of the morning sessions, but I was glad I ended up in this one.

SFU's Co-op Community

Quentin Beck talked about the site they've set up for SFU's Co-op Education Program. It has a fantastic look -– with the photos of people and clean layout, it feels inviting and personal. Not that looks are everything, but so many of these educational sites and applications are so clunky and ugly that the interface creates barriers to further exploration.

I thought that one of the best features of the site was the ability to browse student profiles in each academic discipline (scroll down). So if you're a student considering a co-op option for human resources, you can see profiles of the students who have done work terms in that discipline. Clicking into a profile gives you the student's take on their experience and work-term employer, even including contact information if you're logged in. Potential employers can also browse profiles for their recruiting efforts. It's fairly simple and powerful, offering great networking potential. I imagined the value for a high school student trying to get a sense of a potential post-secondary program and what kind of work it might lead to.

Although this is a definite strength of the site, I'm not sure that it constitutes a community, at least not in the sense that I understand it. It's fantastic marketing and provides a great information resource. It gives the impression of a student-driven network, but all of the content in the profiles is carefully monitored, edited and approved by the webmasters. They can't have co-op students slagging employers. So although the exercise may be reflective for the students, the primary utility is for the institution -- it's more about marketing than the spirit of blogging or community-building. I don't mean that as a criticism. This is a very specific focus, and it appears to be working exceptionally well -- but calling it a community seems to stretch the definition.

This attempt to balance institutional control and personal freedom is interesting. It appears that the discussion boards are more free-form (although still moderated), but there hasn't been a lot of activity in there considering the overall usage and number of members. Other than that, the rest of the site has all kinds of learning resources that apparently get a fair bit of traffic: job interview practice, resume help, portfolio guidance, and work trends. They built the site themselves over a year and a half and adapted open-source tools for some sections.

Learning Times

The next two communities we saw in the session came across a bit like sales pitches for Learning Times, which is a very expensive subscription-based application for creating hosted online communities that reminded me of what the big LMS vendors are offering -- packed with features and locked away behind virtual fences. Paul Stacey was representing BC Campus, but he's also affiliated with Learning Times -- he presented BC Campus's online communities for educators. These are closed systems, so I can't show you what they look like. If you're not directly associated with a BC public university, you can't even view their main community as a guest.

This one is more open, but still requires registration and login to read an article. I understand the need for permissions and security, but these kinds of sites just don't feel like part of the web -- they seem to represent the opposite direction of the best possible future for the web. They do not enrich the wider network or take advantage of it.

We also saw an online community for this fascinating research project, also hosted by BC Campus/Learning Times at the cost of about $8000/year, which would be way more if they weren't associated with BC Campus. I wonder why they wouldn't have gone with Bryght or IncSub for a tiny fraction of the cost, with better interfaces and open-source foundations? It seems like they might have succumbed to feature-itis, thinking they needed every possible networking feature (chat, listserv, message board, blogs, permissions, etc) all in one application, rather than choosing separate tools as needed.

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